Iran is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. Its water-related problems are largely structural problems which could not be overcome easily in a short period of time. Although the adoption of more effective water management policies and the use of more sophisticated technologies could help Tehran to manage its water-related environmental and agricultural problems better, the Iranian authorities seem to be using hydrodiplomacy in a very unconstructive way in order to blame Turkey and other neighboring states for its own ineffective water management problems.
The underlying intention of Tehran seems to be one of the tactics to divert the public attention in Iran from its failures in water management policies, which also suffer from a number of setbacks since the early 2017.
Iran’s unconstructive hydrodiplomacy has reached to a new level of blame-game since June 2017, when some of the Iranian authorities have pointed out Turkey, which is one of Iran’s key regional competitors, as a scapegoat for Iran’s own water-related environmental problems.
More specifically, the Iranian authorities questioned Turkey’s existing dams and planned dam projects over the Euphrates and Tigris river basin. These dams are core elements of Ankara’s comprehensive Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi (Southeastern Anatolia Project -GAP) which is based on a sustainable multi-sector and integrated regional development strategy.
The GAP, which envisages the construction of around two dozens of dams and hydropower plants each when it is realized in full, is intended to promote social development not only by modernizing the irrigation technologies of the regional agricultural sector but also by generating more electricity for the regional industrial sector as well as improving the health and education opportunities for the people in this region.
In early June, Iran’s Minister of Energy, Hamid Chitchian linked the sand and dust storms in Khuzestan (Ahwaz for the ethnic Arabs in this region) Province, which is located in the southwestern part of Iran, to Turkey's policy of dams’ construction. For Chitchian, these dust storms are caused by dried wetlands in Iraq which stems from the declining quantity of water released by Turkey to Syria and Iraq due to its large dam projects. Hamid Chitchian claimed that Turkey’s dams on the Euphrates and Tigris river basin have adverse effects on the environmental situation in the southwestern parts of Iran.
More importantly, Chitchian’s statements were also echoed by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani during the opening ceremony of the international conference on “Combating Land Desertification and Dust Storms” which was held in Tehran on 3-5 July 2017. Rouhani criticized Ankara’s plans of constructing more dams in the Euphrates and Tigris river basin without naming Turkey. He pointed at Turkey by calling it a neighboring country, which has built dams without taking their environmental impact into account. The Iranian president also speculated that these dams harm regional environment, including that of Iran.
Nevertheless, this blame-game diplomacy of the Iranian authorities is not based on convincing evidences. In fact, there is no direct causal link between Turkey’s dams in the Euphrates and Tigris river basin and the dust and sand storms in Iran’s Khuzestan province. In other words, there is no scientifically observed relationship between Turkey’s dams and Iran’s desertification problem, which is the main source of dust and sand storms.
The existing literature on this topic suggests that the sand and dust storms in Iran’s Khuzestan province seem to originate from long-time existing, but not newly formed, deserts in this province. Actually, in the last two or three decades during which Turkey’s dams have been operational, newly formed deserts which could generate such dust and sand storms, are not observed in this part of Iran. In the absence of scientifically proven objective data on the sources and characteristics of desertification as well as dust and sand storms in Iran’s Khuzestan province, the Iranian claims turn out to be politically motivated subjective statements against relatively more effective water management policies of Turkey, which is also Tehran’s one of the key competitors in regional politics in the Middle East.
Contrary to these claims of the Iranian authorities, Turkey’s dams are not part of the regional water-related problems, but rather parts of the solutions to the regional challenges of the water management in the Euphrates and Tigris river basin. These dams regulate water flows and enable the most effective use of water resources for agricultural productivity as well as socio-economic development of the Euphrates and Tigris river basin in Turkey. They also provide the other riparian countries of Iraq and Syria with regular and sufficient quantity of water even at times of dry weather conditions and droughts. Similarly, these dams also play a crucial role in preventing floods in these riparian countries when the river basin gets excessive rainfall. Regarding these risks of droughts and floods, Turkey’s dams contribute positively to the water management in both Iraq and Syria directly and to the environmental situation in Iran indirectly.
According to the existing literature, the underlying reason behind the environmental crisis in Iran’s Khuzestan region seems to be the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s radical policy of drying up of the swamplands in the southern part of Iraq, which caused the intensification of the dust storms in the neighboring Khuzestan region. In addition, there are also some structural factors which intensify Iran’s desertification and other water-related environmental problems. Among these problems, high population growth rate in Iran increases the demand for water as well as water consumption levels. Another structural problem seems to be the lack of investment in modern technologies and irrigation projects in order to increase the effective use of water resources for enhancing agricultural productivity. In this sense, Iran’s ineffective water management policies play a decisive role in the worsening water-related environmental problems of Iran.
Last but not the least factor that contributed to the deteriorating environmental situation in Iran’s Khuzestan province seems to be the construction of a number of dams and canals in order to divert the water resources of the Karun River in this region to Zenda Rud River in Isfahan region. This controversial project seems to have also contributed to the land desertification as well as dust and sand storms in Iran’s Khuzestan region.
More significantly, a closer look at this last factor could be very helpful in explaining why the Iranian authorities prefer to blame on Turkey’s existing dams and planned dam projects for the environmental problems in Khuzestan (Ahwaz for the ethnic Arabs) Province, which is densely Arab populated part of Iran. Although there is no convincing evidence for this either, one could even allege that the blame-game diplomacy of the Iranian authorities might serve to contain the dissatisfactions of the ethnic Arabs, who form the majority of the population especially in the rural parts of this province, over the water diversion from Karun River to Zenda Rud River. In other words, Iran’s domestic need to prevent the use of water-related environmental problems for ethnic mobilization among the local Arab community might have played a role in Iranian blame-game diplomacy vis-à-vis Turkey in the Euphrates and Tigris river basin.
To conclude, Iran’s blame-game hydrodiplomacy is not a sustainable and constructive approach to Iran’s diplomatic relations with Turkey and its other neighbors. Iran could cope with its water-related environmental problems by modernizing and improving the effectiveness of its own water management policies.